Implications for Leaders of School Improvement
Leaders of school improvement efforts must understand
that schools are complex organisms, with all parts interrelated
and interdependent. The fact that the leader is also part of this
organism creates difficulty. The leader both acts on and is acted
upon by the context of the school. The context of the school plays
a vital role in school improvement efforts and the success of at-risk
students. Leaders must understand and learn how to work with elements
of the school context if they want school improvement to succeed.
Many elements of the school context impact the efforts of those
seeking to improve schools. A small school size seems to facilitate
change. Mega-schools may adopt school-within-a-school structures
to facilitate development of the sense of community necessary to
support these changes. Policies may be established that encourage the
development of a context that supports school improvement. When
teachers and administrators must depart from district or state policies
and regulations to improve instruction, it is not difficult to understand
why they are reluctant to change.
The culture of the school exerts a powerful and pervasive
influence over everything in the school. It is important to debunk
long standing myths and beliefs regarding schools and schooling.
Some of the most powerful of these are:
- Teachers' and administrators' view of each other as
adversaries rather than colleagues.
- Teachers' and administrators' view of parents and
community members as adversaries rather than
- Internal beliefs regarding children's "innate"
- A feeling of hopelessness and the lack of a feeling of
- The belief that the power structure that exists now
(authoritarian and hierarchical) is the only way that
schools can be structured.
- A belief that there is only one best way to teach all
The interaction of beliefs such as these and the school setting powerfully
impact what teachers and administrators do, what they see (in terms
of what the problems are and what solutions can be considered),
and what they are willing to change. Before a leader can work to
change beliefs in an individual school, the beliefs held by teachers,
as well as the leader's own beliefs, need examination. If the internally
held beliefs and perceptions that truly guide behavior do not change,
neither will the school, at least not for long.
Because actions reflect deeply held and often unquestioned beliefs
and myths, the culture of the school may need alteration. This task
requires understanding the culture, being open to criticism, and
confronting those beliefs that act as barriers to the success of at-risk
students. Changes in "the way we do things around here" will be
made. A knowledge of factors identified by Schein (1985) that affect
internalization can be used to help staff internalize the new culture.
Cultural norms of continuous improvement, a shared sense of
purpose that includes a vision of improved outcomes for at-risk
students as a major goal, and collegial relationships provide support
for school improvement efforts. Norms of continuous improvement
and experimentation imply that teachers constantly seek and assess
potentially better practices inside and outside their own schools. This
culture of continuous introspection helps build a school community
where collaboration, collegiality, and involvement by many groups in
decision making may exist. This is vital to the development of a
shared vision which is, in turn, vital to successful implementation.
Not only should this shared vision include the outcomes desired by
those involved, it also should include a shared vision about "how to
get there", which includes the change process itself. A shared sense
of purpose creates ownership of the program among all players.
Schools must be open to the idea that criticism is necessary because it
exposes areas of weakness. If these weaknesses are denied or ignored
change cannot happen.
Change produces anxiety for everyone involved.
in change are asked to rethink their beliefs, recognize unproductive
patterns, and change them. Persons confronting change seem
primarily interested in three things when confronted with changing
the informal rules they have worked out about how things are to be
done. They are:
- How will this change affect me and what I do personally?
- Why do you have reason to believe this can be implemented?
- Once implemented, why do you think it will work?
Leaders can help resolve fears and provide support both emotionally and
with necessary resources, including time. The resource of time is
especially important considering that changing the culture of the
school is extremely time consuming and costly. The staff needs to
know what the new "thing" looks like when fully implemented, and
what modifications they can make, if needed, without sacrificing
the integrity of the new program.
Teachers also need to believe that they are the essential ingredient
in success for at-risk students and to act in ways that confirm this
belief. Leaders can focus attention on the need for autonomy,
independence, and a sense of efficacy on the part of teachers.
Leaders need to investigate past attempts to change the school and
explain why this innovation is different. They also must understand
that teachers are resistant to change based in part on past experiences
with change and their belief system or mental model of schools.
Commitment and innovation
cannot be mandated.
Commitment and innovation cannot be mandated.
They come from the establishment of a school context that supports collegial
relationships, shared decision making, autonomy with accountability,
and involvement by all those involved in education. This environment
exists both inside the school and in the external environment. This
environment creates a starting point for lasting school improvement.
According to Sergiovanni (1990), schools are "tightly coupled"
around cultural themes. "Teachers and students are driven less by
bureaucratic rules, management protocols, contingency tradeoffs and
images of rational reality and more by norms, group mores, patterns
of beliefs, values, the socialization process and socially-constructed
reality…In a loosely connected world, it is culture…that is key to
bringing about the coordination and sense of order needed for
effectiveness" (p. 11).
Students are active participants in the change process.
Student involvement in making decisions needs to take the form of more than
just a few student leaders, especially when trying to improve the
performance of at-risk students who are unlikely to be those elected to
the student council. Leaders need an awareness of the following
student attitudes toward change identified by Fullan (1991):
- Indifference -- The change must be meaningful to students'
- Confusion -- Teachers and administrators must have a clear
picture of the change so that students will too.
- Temporary escape from boredom -- It must be demonstrated that
the improvement effort is not just another passing novelty.
- Heightened interest and engagement with learning and the school
-- Students must be participants in the change effort.
Promoting interest and engagement with learning and school on the part
of students is essential because the change effort will struggle
if students remain indifferent, confused, or only temporarily amused
by the change. Involving students will help alleviate student boredom
and alienation. Changing student-teacher relationships so that students
perceive teachers as persons who care about them can help increase
student engagement with the school. Once again, a sense of community
will be developed. This community must be one, however, that does
not merely accommodate students by lowering expectations and providing
ways for students to be supported to the extent that they believe
they do not need to take responsibility for themselves. Leaders
may also assess the student peer culture and look for ways to mesh
it with the school culture to provide more support for the change
Lawton, Leithwood, Batcher, Donaldson, and Stewart, in their
study of dropouts in Ontario high schools (1988), identified factors
from research on exemplary secondary schools and then tested these
factors as a causal model of school-related factors that influence the
dropout problem. Six categories were found to correlate with both
school effectiveness and reduced dropout rates:
- Shared goals -- clarity and commitment to intellectual goals
- Dedicated, collegial teachers who expect all students to be
- A school organization and policies that encourage academic
achievement, a degree of flexibility, and a lack of preoccupation
with simply "running a smooth ship".
- A strong basic and academic curriculum with student grades
based on a large sample of student work.
- A widely shared school culture that supports respect for individuals,
provides safety, and places priority on academic work.
- A school-community relationship that is supportive due to a
positive image of the school in the community.
The school context does shape what administrators are able to do. However,
the belief that "the system won't let us" becomes a self- fulfilling
prophecy all too often. Support by the principal is vital, to the
extent that the principal has been called the gatekeeper of change.
The relationship between teachers and the principal sets the standard
for all other relationships in the school. Principals, in turn,
need the support of the superintendent and central office.
The culture of the school reflects local community culture in
many ways. Community support of the school itself and for the
change effort is vital. Parents and community members can be active
partners and allies, not adversaries. This will provide the resources
needed and assist in changing the culture of the school.
The interrelatedness of the contextual factors presented in this
paper may cause difficulty or provide support in creating schools
where student outcomes are not dependent on gender, ethnicity,
socioeconomic status, at-risk status, or other labels that are applied to
students. In order to remove barriers and facilitate efforts to improve
schools for all students, leaders can support and nurture conditions
that create the cooperative and introspective context needed for lasting
improvement for all students, especially those whose characteristics
and background interact with the context of the school to create
conditions of risk.